“Rest Stop” owes its existence to the seemingly ever-expanding ‘direct to DVD’ market. Whereas bypassing a theatrical release and dumping straight to disc (or, in the “old days” , VHS) used to be seen as a last ditch necessity in order to (at the very least) salvage the cost of a no-hope celluloid turkey, these days Warner Home Video have a direct to DVD division called RAW FEED, which is solely dedicated to producing horror movies that were never even intended to grace a cinema screen in the first place. Clearly, rightly or wrongly, the horror audience has come to be seen as one which is easily pandered to; an audience that is mainly comprised of a certain age group and sex (16-24 males), with certain limited preoccupations (boobs and gore and … boobs!), and which lends itself to being made fodder for cookie cutter plots full of hackneyed ideas that rely on whatever the last big thing in the genre was, washed down with agreeable dollops of … well, boobs and gore!
Writer and director John Shiban is the perfect choice for such a vehicle; having been staff writer on “The X-Files” at its height and also “Supernatural”, he can probably churn such stuff out in his sleep. “Rest Stop” does indeed play like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone” with the requisite ’70s “backwoods menace” vibe and modern nihilistic “torture porn” references all present and correct. So, cynical as it undoubtedly is, one would expect to be able to dismiss the whole thing without to much further ado. But, more often than not, Shiban’s ‘throw-everything-at-the-screen’ policy in the script writing department does seem largely to stick, here. Although, essentially, still a predictable and rather silly 'maniac on the loose' flick, this is still a better effort than many a 'bona fide’ theatrical release; it’s certainly more watchable than many of the recent (allegedly) “Masters of Horror” episodes!
Nicole Carrow (Jaimie Alexander) and her boyfriend Jess (Joey Mendicino) are on the road, en route to a new life of independence in California, although beau Jess can't help suspecting that it is the chance to escape an overweening small town and the watchful eye of her parents that is the determining factor in his girlfriend's decision to join him in his putative new life. Despite an impromptu stop for some roadside sex — which sees newcomer Alexander delivering on her required topless nudity duties within the first five minutes of the film — the lure of the sunshine and open road soon begins to wear thin; first, when Jess receives a phone call that effectively now leaves the couple with nowhere to live when they reach their destination; and secondly, when a beat-up '70s period truck runs them off the road!
After getting hopelessly lost on meandering back-roads, they pull in at a dilapidated and abandoned Rest Stop so that Nicole can relieve herself in what turns out to be a thoroughly filthy Ladies' room: little more than a shit-smeared trash can with obscenities scratched on the toilet cubicle door and rancid scraps of soggy, stained tissue drooping forlornly from a discoloured towel dispenser. Ominously, the notice board outside is full of Missing Persons posters, and, among the scrawls on the cubicle door, are many hastily scribbled missives desperately begging for 'help'. Upon gingerly leaving the rest room, Nicole is perplexed to find both her boyfriend and his car have completely disappeared, despite the fact that she had heard nothing while only a few feet away inside the toilet cubicle. Strange guttural noises can be heard and the flash from an old-style Polaroid camera can be seen coming from a rusted old trailer elsewhere on the deserted site, although the occupants are non-responsive to Nicole's shouts for assistance. And then the truck that originally ran them off the road reappears and promptly attempts to run Nicole over again! Her worst fears are confirmed when the invisible occupant throws her boyfriend's smashed-up mobile phone out of the truck window as he rushes at her!
From here on, Shiban seems to be heading down an all too familiar road (no pun intended): the trucker appears and re-appears, attempts to kill Nicole and then just as mysteriously disappears again long enough to allow the panicking girl to make various futile attempts at getting help. Breaking into the Ranger's cabin, Nicole thinks she has found salvation when she manages to contact the Ranger on the '70s period CB radio, but is horrified to discover that his off-duty stack of porn videos include herself and her boyfriend's earlier roadside sex antics recorded on grainy black & white video! When the trailer starts to pull out of the Rest Stop, she at first thinks she is home free when it stops, in response to her pleading screams, to pick her up. But the family inside turn out to be a cross between the in-breds from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and something nasty from "Eraserhead": a sweating, bespectacled patriarch (Michael Childers) and a grinning, big-haired mother figure (Diane Louise Salinger) who regales Nicole with lewd anecdotes about masturbating on the toilet; also in attendance are their creepy twin sons (Gary and Edmund Entin), who sit in staring silence, wearing matching blazers and slacks; in the back room dwells the owner of the flashbulb camera, the elder couple's wheelchair-bound deformed little son, Scotty (Mikey Post)!
Their exact relationship to the killer is never made clear in the film (although some clue is given in a separate short feature starring 'the Family', which is included in the Bonus Features section of the DVD, and which makes one wish that they had got more screen time in the film proper). But, with their appearance, Shiban does signal that the film is about to enter an "anything goes" phase designed to stop things getting too jaundiced and which takes the film out of the typical slasher territory. Soon it becomes apparent that there is a supernatural element at play in the plot, and Nicole might well have been transported to the 1970's in some sort of time slip. A blood hemorrhaging girl suddenly appears in the cleaning cupboard of the rest room, but just as quickly disappears again. Her photo is one of those on the old missing persons posters, which go back decades. A police patrol man (Joseph Lawrence) turns up during the lengthy middle section of the movie, but he's also written out of the equation once he's filled up enough screen time to take the film into the final act.
The supernatural elements are clearly being used to enable Shiban to deliver as many twists as he can humanly cram into one eighty minute movie that mostly takes place in a single small room and which is otherwise totally dependent on actress Jaimie Alexander to carry it on her own for a good deal of the running time. But the results are more than a little uneven and undisciplined, as is testified by the fact that this film has got not one, not two, but (including the one used in the film itself) FOUR alternative endings (and two of those have variant versions, so that makes a grand total of six possible endings all together)!! All of these alternate endings are included on the DVD as bonus features. If the slasher, backwoods killer and ghostly angles weren't more than enough to be going on with, there is also an unhealthy dose of "torture porn" thrown in to explain the unpleasant fate of Nicole's boyfriend (as well as the bleeding girl from the 1970s cleaning cupboard). Cue a drill bite piercing a naked thigh, an industrial stapler being applied to the soles of a victim's feet and a tongue being snipped off with pliers — all should keep the salivating gore freaks in the horror demographic happy.
There ends up being little rhyme or reason to any it, of course, and the ending (the one included in the film), although the least ridiculous of the six, is probably also the weakest and most disappointing possible. But, while musing on this last misfire, one can't help realising that one's attention has otherwise been held for the entire running time, and, in that respect, the film achieves what it modestly set out to do, and so can't really be lambasted too hard. The DVD includes a few short featurettes: a 'behind the scenes of the special effects' piece with Shiban commentary, an interview with Jaimie Alexander, the previously mentioned alternative endings reel and a short film starring the trailer family, which is actually very funny in parts.